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The Social Worker’s Role in Reducing Recidivism and Improving Community Reintegration

November 28, 2023

The United States incarcerates a greater share of its citizens than any other country. According to Pew Research Center, 639 out of every 100,000 U.S. adults were in prison as of August 2021.

A major contributor to the nation’s mass incarceration rate is recidivism: the tendency of a formerly incarcerated individual to re-offend after having served their sentence. Of incarcerated individuals released in 2012 — the most recent cohort for which figures are available — 46 percent were reincarcerated within five years, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).

Many factors can help in reducing recidivism rates and improve community reintegration, but one is the involvement of social workers, says Gary Cuddeback, interim dean and associate dean for research at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Social Work

“For many formerly incarcerated individuals, a social worker can be their only hope,” he says. By becoming a social worker, he adds, a person can play a variety of roles to help formerly incarcerated people stay out of prison and build new lives.

What Is Recidivism? 

In the most basic terms, recidivism is the tendency to relapse into criminal behavior. Figures from the BJS paint a more detailed picture of what recidivism is.


Besides reincarceration, another measure of recidivism is rearrest. Of incarcerated individuals released in 2012, 71 percent were arrested for another offense within five years. 

Public Order Offenses

The most common reason for rearrest was disturbing public order: a category that includes driving under the influence, disorderly conduct and weapons violations. Such incarcerated individuals made up 54 percent of those rearrested.

Connected to Youth

The older an individual is when released, the better their chances of staying out of prison. Incarcerated individuals aged 40 or older at release were 64 percent less likely to re-offend than those 24 or younger.

Causes of Recidivism

Recidivism is a complex problem with multiple causes, says Cuddeback. “There are many barriers that make it difficult for these individuals to obtain housing, employment, insurance, educational opportunities, and basic health and behavioral health services and supports.” 

Some major barriers include:


For formerly incarcerated individuals, several obstacles can make gainful employment a difficult goal:

  • Lack of education and job skills
  • Employer policies against hiring formerly incarcerated individuals 
  • Low wages, difficult working conditions and inconvenient working hours


In some states, formerly incarcerated individuals are not allowed to vote, and some lose their right to vote permanently. These laws vary by state, and in some states, certain requirements must be met for individuals to regain their right to vote. Being ineligible to vote can have negative effects on the individual, as well as on public safety. Studies have shown that not allowing previously incarcerated  individuals to vote can impede societal reintegration and make the individuals feel ostracized, which may contribute to negative perceptions of abiding by the law. 


Many landlords refuse to rent to people with criminal records. Even when they’re willing, deposits and other fees may make housing unaffordable. The Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) finds that formerly incarcerated individuals are 10 times as likely to experience homelessness as the general public.

Mental Health

Roughly half of all incarcerated individuals in the U.S. are diagnosed with mental health issues, according to BJS. This is in contrast to approximately one-third of the general public. 

But only 36 percent of incarcerated individuals receive any mental health care, PPI reports. After release, untreated mental illness can add another layer of difficulty to reentry to society.

Substance Use

According to data collected between 2007 and 2009 by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than half of incarcerated individuals in state prisons and two-thirds of individuals in jail met the criteria for substance dependence or misuse. By comparison, only five percent of adults in the general population met the criteria for substance dependence or misuse. These statistics highlight the disproportionate prevalence of substance misuse and dependence among previously incarcerated individuals, which may increase the likelihood of recidivism. 

Parole Requirements

At the end of 2020, 862,100 formerly incarcerated individuals were on parole, according to BJS. Of those, 14 percent ended up reincarcerated. 

Violating parole requirements, such as restrictions on movement and meetings with parole officers, can lead directly to reincarceration. But the requirements themselves can also complicate reentry by conflicting with work schedules and housing options.

The Role of Social Workers in Reducing Recidivism and Improving Community Reintegration

Many of the challenges that previously incarcerated individuals face are social problems that interconnect in complex ways. In that respect, they mirror the problems social workers face with other clients. That’s why one of the benefits of being a social worker is the chance to assist in reducing recidivism and support clients with community reintegration.

“To help someone have a successful reentry after incarceration — reconnect with social supports, find a job, go back to school, or access health and behavioral health services — are all important and rewarding parts of the job,” Cuddeback says. This assistance can take multiple forms.

Resource Connections

Serving a formerly incarcerated person often begins with a psychosocial needs assessment. After assessing needs, a social worker can connect the individual with resources to meet them. 

These resources may come from government agencies or nonprofits. They can be as diverse as transportation, health care, counseling, public assistance and job training. 

Employment Opportunities

Because it can be hard for previously incarcerated individuals to find employment, some social work agencies actively connect them with employers. 

One is Cornbread Hustle in Dallas, which takes a multipronged approach to training formerly incarcerated individuals and helping them find jobs: 

  • Seeking job listings from employers open to giving them second chances 
  • Offering a 12-week program for current and formerly incarcerated individuals to train them in workplace and entrepreneurial skills
  • Referring successful graduates of the program to job openings

Therapeutic Services

Without addressing the mental health and substance use needs of many people with justice system involvement, behaviors leading to criminal charges and incarceration can be hard to break. 

In Washington, D.C., the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency connects formerly incarcerated individuals with mental health providers and maintains ongoing contact to promote compliance with treatment programs. 

A different approach is to combine therapy with a job. In Charleston, South Carolina, Turn90 employs formerly incarcerated individuals in a screen printing business while also paying them to attend 150 hours of cognitive behavioral therapy. It reports that 78 percent of its graduates have never been rearrested. 

Housing Assistance

Social workers can help previously incarcerated individuals find funding for housing and sympathetic landlords. They can also directly help individuals locate housing, in connection with other services.

In Los Angeles, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition offers 58 beds at two sites for formerly incarcerated individuals. Life coaches work with each resident to teach life skills. They ensure that residents are in school or working and saving at least 15 percent of their income.

Explore the Possibilities of a Career in Social Work 

Social work is a crucial profession for improving both individual lives and communities. Whether helping formerly incarcerated individuals stay out of prison or providing health education to a community, social workers play a vital role in society.

Virginia Commonwealth University’s online Master of Social Work Program format can equip students with both clinical skills and foundational principles like social justice, diversity and cultural competence. It also provides work opportunities to apply those skills in the field. 

Learn more about how the program can prepare you for a rewarding career in social work.